It’s hard not to root for a film like Three Thousand Years Of Longing. George Miller has long been one of our more adventuresome and tonally varied filmmakers, so his take on romantic fantasy is a tantalizing proposition, and the writer-director (with co-writer Augusta Gore) certainly doesn’t disappoint with his latest in terms of idiosyncrasies and compelling aesthetics. The film is so distinctly and uniquely its own thing that it’s tempting to praise it on that basis alone, to consider it elevated for the simple virtue of simply being itself. But Three Thousand Years Of Longing unfortunately undercuts its own effectiveness as a singular piece, presenting less as a unified vision of an auteur director than a scattershot assemblage of motifs, philosophies, and themes in search of a spine to hold them together.
Tilda Swinton plays Alithea, a narratologist and literary scholar perfectly content with a life of solitude and academic study. While presenting at a literary conference in Istanbul, she discovers a beautiful bottle that she brings back to her hotel room, only to find a Djinn (Idris Elba) within. The Djinn insists that Alithea make three wishes for her heart’s greatest desires, but the allegedly contented scholar is not only bereft of sufficient desires, but wary of the possible consequences of her wishes. Her objections lead the Djinn to tell her stories of his long and varied life, exploring through dramatic flashbacks the ways that wishes did and did not improve the lives of his previous masters, as well as the impact those experiences had on the Djinn himself.
Those taken in by the frenetic tone of the film’s marketing may be surprised to find Three Thousand Years to be a fairly somber, mostly melancholy affair. Miller’s offbeat sense of humor is certainly ever-present, as is the filmmaker’s penchant for distinctive visual iconography—exemplified by surreal imagery grounded in Middle Eastern myth and history—but the film is mostly content to be a moody collection of vignettes. Existing somewhere between anthology and philosophy lecture, the Djinn’s narrated experiences are often reflective, sometimes devastating, and always tinged with a persistent attitude of sadness. In some ways, this is a strength, as the film inhabits this mythic space between straightforward narrative convention and metatextual analysis, commenting on itself even as adheres more to the structure of folkloric tradition than the modern conventions of cinematic act structure.
Yet it’s equally gutting to the film’s efforts to be so transparently self-reflexive, to be so committed to so many interweaving themes that it never coalesces into a film worthy of the arcs of its individual stories. The Djinn ruminates on the follies of a previous master’s misguided pursuit of happiness regardless of consequence, his own damned fate as an incorporeal ghost, and the love of a fiercely intelligent woman trapped by the prejudices of her time. Each story is compelling in its own right, but they don’t adequately convey the bittersweet sweep of the Djinn’s time among mortals, nor do they fully complement one another. The nature of empathy and love; the traditions of stories and why we tell them; the deconstruction of common myths of wish-making; the desperate need for interpersonal connection, even across an immortal eternity: these all are meditated upon by Alithea and the Djinn, but they never come to any satisfying conclusions through their rumination, no discernible purpose beyond the notion that these are conversations to be had.
This is in large part a failure of the framing narrative in which Alithea and the Djinn converse, which can at times stumble from story to story with stilted dialogue. And while Swinton and Elba are both delivering superb performances plumbing the depths of their respective characters, Swinton comes off significantly worse as a character driven by plotted necessity instead of observable motivation. This isn’t as much of a problem when she is primarily a sounding board for the Djinn’s autobiographical musings, but it comes into fairly stark relief when a sudden decision kicks off the film’s final act, wherein Alithea actively takes on the role of the Djinn’s new master with her first wish.
It’s a contrivance that only foreshadows the remaining scenes’ stumbling attempts at romantic catharsis before falling across the finish line. Consequently, the film doesn’t feel like the culmination of two individuals growing into and from their relationship with one another, but a flimsy capper to an collection of short stories that are so desperate to be about so many things that it forgets that it takes two complete characters to make a love story.
Three Thousand Years Of Longing will certainly garner its share of fans, folks who are content to allow the film’s messages to wash over them like a series of fables delivered from the mouth of a loved one. But there’s no denying that the experience is a messy amalgamation, rife with seemingly unmotivated dalliances amid a structure that values its central relationship much less than should be expected from an ostensible romance. Though you won’t regret seeing Three Thousand Years Of Longing, it may leave you wishing that it lived up to its potential.